Since when was being different a bad thing?

As a culture, we New Zealanders are hesitant to make a fuss, to stand out, to be different. We call it the Tall Poppy Syndrome and we’re the first to cut down these tall poppies. But why? Why is it so bad to be different? Shouldn’t we celebrate our diversity, our achievements and our day to day successes?

The ironic thing about this is that New Zealanders punch well above our weight on the world’s stage. We have top level sportspeople across a variety of sports, we are leaders in medicine, technology, philanthropy (Fred Hollows anyone?) and science. And yet we are strangely reluctant to put our hands up. Did I ask Dame Kiri te Kanawa for her autograph when I sat behind her in a plane from London to Bordeaux? No, even though we had a conversation with her and her daughter. Do I ever say to Michael Galvin when I see him each week at swimming lessons with his daughter “I know who you are”? No. Did I say to John Eels when I met him and shook his hand “It’s such an honour to meet you even if you broke our hearts with those last minute kicks?” Actually, yes, I did, but I was so flustered I think he thought I was a somewhat demented chipmunk and probably didn’t understand a word I said!

But why? Why am I so scared to talk to these people who I admire and think of as successful? Is it because I don’t think that I am successful? Sure, I don’t have fame or fortune, but I am a good person, I’m doing an ok job with my kids and my friends don’t seem to think I’m a waste of space. But do I value myself? Do I celebrate my differences?Probably not.

As a child and teenager I was not in the common mould (and I’m sorry for my kids, because neither are they!). Did I care? Not especially. I had my books, my imagination and a loving family. Was I afraid to make a complete fool of myself? Not especially, and to be fair, my children will tell you that to this day I will happily embarrass myself and them. I really liked my teachers and thought they were nice people in the main. I wore the vibrant yellow PVC slicker raincoat that my dad bought me with pride, even though yellow is not my best colour and it certainly wasn’t like the cool black oilskins that the other kids had. Did I ever feel that I fit in properly? Not so much. Did I have friends then that I still have now? No. But I got those once I moved to a big city where my small eccentricities didn’t even make a ripple and people accepted me for who I was - and liked me!

And what, I hear you say, has all this to do with being gluten-free? It’s all about not making a fuss. Not being seen as high maintenance. Not being different. I have touched on this in a previous post and talked about how my reluctance to make waves lead me to have a horrible face for days afterwards. At work lunches, do I ask the wait staff about the gluten-free options on the menu regardless of who I am out with? No, I don’t. If I’ve planned the lunch or dinner, I always check out the menu beforehand. But if it’s a spur of the moment thing, I often hope for the best or try to make it very subtle.

Why? Why do I do this? If one of my children was gluten-free, I’d be the crusading mother out to ensure that nothing they shouldn’t eat passed their lips. I’d be militant about ensuring they had the best options available to them and I would never hesitate to question the wait staff until I was satisfied. But because it’s for me, and I’ve never been high maintenance, I am strangely reluctant to make a fuss. Even when I know the consequences will be dire.

Maybe the way around it is to think about how I want my children to be as they grow up. Do I want them to be shrinking violets (not a word often applied to me I have to say!)? Do I want them to be doormats? Do I want them to be pigeon-holed into some kind of round hole when they’re a square peg? Of course I don’t! I want their creativity to be encouraged; I want them to ask their difficult questions of those around them, be they parents, teachers or friends; I want them to care for themselves and for others; I want them to have the confidence to celebrate their differences and value themselves for them, not in spite of them. If I want them to be like that, I need to lead by example!

I’m happy to report that the day after I wrote this blog, I went out for lunch for work. There was a special on the menu, read out by the waitress and it sounded very nice indeed. She got around to me and I boldly said “Is that beef salad gluten-free?” The response was “there is some flour on the beef, but I can ask the kitchen to make it gluten-free for you. “ How good is that? So props to The Foodstore for excellent wait staff (once again!) and props to me for having the balls to be different! Bring on that teenager in the yellow slicker. Maybe next week at swimming I'll even talk to Michael Galvin rather than just exchanging wry glances at the antics of our children :-) Vive la difference!

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